Australian scientist: DNA research and Mormon scholars changing basic beliefs

Posted: Friday, July 30, 2004

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) Fundamental teachings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints about some events in the Book of Mormon are changing not through revelation, but through church-sanctioned scholars' reinterpretations, an Australian geneticist and former LDS bishop writes in a new book.

In ''Losing a Lost Tribe: Native Americans, DNA and the Mormon Church,'' author Simon Southerton applies his own and others' DNA research to Mormon beliefs, while also examining the writings of Brigham Young University scholars at the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, or FARMS.

Southerton's work examines church teachings that American Indians and Polynesians have a historic bond with ancient Israelites. While the question of whether such a connection exists may seem like an arcane theological point to outsiders, to some Mormons, a reinterpretation would be startling and disturbing.

Indeed, Southerton himself, once a bishop leading a local congregation in Brisbane, Australia, left the church because of his conclusion that no such tie exists. (The church takes issue with his findings).

A senior researcher with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization in Canberra, Australia, Southerton also takes aim at FARMS' assertions that the Book of Mormon's events could only have occurred in parts of Mexico and Guatemala.

That interpretation goes against traditional church teachings that Book of Mormon events took place across the Western Hemisphere and that Native Americans are the descendants of the Hebrews who settled the Americas in 600 B.C., he notes.

''You've got Mormon apologists in their own publications rejecting what prophets have been saying for decades. This becomes very troubling for ordinary members of the church,'' Southerton said.

For a century or so, scientists have theorized that Asians migrated to the Americas across a land bridge at least 14,000 years ago. Over the past 20 years, researchers examining American Indian and Polynesian DNA have found no evidence of Israelite ancestry.

But Mormons have been taught to believe that the Book of Mormon the faith's keystone text is a literal record of God's dealings with the ancient inhabitants of the Americas called Lamanites. They are said to have descended from the Israelite patriarch Lehi, who sailed to the New World around 600 B.C. The book's narrative continues through about 400 A.D.

The church teaches that Joseph Smith translated this record in the 1820s from gold plates he unearthed on a hillside near Palmyra, N.Y. The Book of Mormon was first published in 1830.

The book describes how the Jews who landed in the Americas split into two nations, one light-skinned and culturally advanced, the other inferior and cursed by God with dark skin.

Through most of the thousand years included in the Book of Mormon the two nations warred, until the light-skinned people succumbed to wickedness and the dark-skinned race conquered them. Mormons believe the dark-skinned race Lamanites are American Indians' principal ancestors.

Though not mentioned specifically in the Book of Mormon, Polynesians have been taught they, too, are a branch of the House of Israel descended from Lehi.

Traditionally, and with apparent endorsements from the church's leaders who have the dual title of president and prophet Mormons have understood the Book of Mormon to cover all of the Americas in what is known as the hemispheric model.

At a Bolivian temple dedication in 2000, church President Gordon B. Hinckley prayed, ''We remember before Thee the sons and daughters of Father Lehi.'' And in 1982, the church's then-President Spencer Kimball told Samoans, Maori, Tahitians and Hawaiians that the ''Lord calls you Lamanites.''

But FARMS writers focusing on the Book of Mormon's ''internal geography,'' that is, descriptions of how long it took the ancient peoples to get from one place to another, now believe the events occurred only hundreds of miles from each other, not thousands. That raises new questions including how to explain the vast growth in the Americas' population by the time Europeans began colonization.

Both the LDS church and the BYU scholars, meanwhile, disagree with Southerton's conclusions.

On its Web site, under the ''Mistakes in the News'' heading, the church declares, ''Recent attacks on the veracity of the Book of Mormon based on DNA evidence are ill considered. Nothing in the Book of Mormon precludes migration into the Americas by peoples of Asiatic origin. The scientific issues relating to DNA, however, are numerous and complex.''

The site then offers Web links to five articles, four of which were published last year in the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, a FARMS publication.

BYU political science professor and FARMS director Noel Reynolds said the 25-year-old foundation's research and writings are not aimed at proving or disproving the Book of Mormon.

''We understand the difficulties of that. We get dragged into these discussions repeatedly because of books like Southerton's or ordinary anti-Mormon questions,'' he said.

While believing a hemispheric model might be considered ''naive,'' Reynolds said, ''it's also fair to say that the majority of LDS over a period of time have accepted a hemispheric view, including church leaders.''

Church spokesman Dale Bills said the church teaches only that the events recorded in the Book of Mormon took place somewhere in the Americas.

Southerton remains unconvinced by their arguments.

He said that, given the state of DNA research and increasing lay awareness of it, church leaders ought just to own up to the problems that continued literal teachings about the Book of Mormon present for American Indians and Polynesians.

''They should come out and say, 'There's no evidence to support your Israelite ancestry,''' Southerton said. ''I don't have any problem with anyone believing what's in the Book of Mormon. Just don't make it look like science is backing it all up.''

Church member Jose Aloayza, a Peruvian native and attorney who now lives in Utah, likened the impact of Southerton's conclusions to staring into a spiritual abyss. ''It's very difficult. It is almost traumatizing,'' he said. ''I'm almost here feeling I need an apology. Our prophets should have known better. That's the feeling I get.''

On the Net:

Signature Books, publisher of Southerton's book: http://signaturebooks.com

Church statement on DNA: http://www.lds.org/newsroom/mistakes/0,15331,3885-1-18078,00.html

Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies: http://farms.byu.edu/



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